Introducing Abydos

Overall view of the site, looking West: field house (to left) and king Khasekhemwy’s funerary enclosure (to right). Photo by Matthew Adams for the 2007 PYIFA expedition

The site of Abydos stretches over several square miles of the margins of the desert on the west bank of the Nile in southern Egypt. It was the burial place of Egypt’s first kings and later became the primary cult place of the god Osiris, ruler of the land of the dead.  For millennia the site was held to be one of Egypt’s most sacred and was a place of pilgrimage, where visitors could witness the great festival procession of Osiris, in which episodes of his myth were re-enacted in the sacred landscape.

Later kings built their own temples at Abydos to associate themselves both with Osiris and with their royal ancestors buried at the site. Visitors today can still walk through the magnificently decorated monuments of Seti I and his son Ramesses II.

The importance of Abydos in Egypt’s early history is a major focus of the IFA’s field research program. The desert landscape in the northern part of Abydos appears to have been viewed by Egypt’s early kings as exclusively royal space, a vast stage on which royal status and power were expressed at the very time that the centrality and nature of kingship in Egypt was being defined.

Umm el-Qa’ab leading into the wadi. Photo by Greg Maka for the 2011 PYIFA expedition

As part of this pattern of early royal activity, kings of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties, ca. 3050-2650 BCE built their underground tombs at a remote part of the site, today called Umm el-Qa’ab.

A series of much more mysterious royal monuments was constructed at the same time about 1 mile to the north on the desert edge overlooking the ancient town. The IFA’s excavations here have revealed that these buildings were closely connected functionally to the royal tombs. Each king constructed not only a tomb for himself at Umm el-Qa’ab but also a monumental ritual
precinct, called a funerary cult enclosure, on the desert edge near the town. The cult enclosure was an integral component of each early royal funerary complex, and these structures appear to represent the nascence of royal monumental architectural expression. The IFA’s excavations at Abydos have resulted in the discovery of a number of new royal enclosures and at the same time have shed important new light on the patterns of construction, ritual use, and deliberate demolition that characterize the history of these monuments.

Excavation underway in 2010 at the Shunet el-Zebib. Photo by Greg Maka for the PYIFA expedition

Only one of the royal enclosures at Abydos still stands today. Known locally as the Shunet el-Zebib, or simply as the Shuneh, this monument, the massive enclosure of king Khasekhemwy of Dynasty 2 (ca. 2650 BCE), was the last and largest built at the site and dominates the desert landscape of north Abydos to this day.  Despite its remarkable survival (most of its walls still rise to near their original height of 35 or so feet), this monument built of sun-dried mudbrick, has suffered greatly from the effects of natural forces as well as animal and human activity, and many parts of its great walls are in danger of collapse.

Given the unique significance of the Shuneh as the sole surviving example of Egypt’s earliest royal monumental building tradition, the Abydos cult enclosure, and the risks to its survival posed by its serious condition problems, IFA has undertaken a program of comprehensive architectural documentation and conservation, the first such program for a mudbrick monument of its scale in Egypt.

Integrated closely with the archaeological research and excavation program and designed in collaboration with leading preservation architects, the IFA’s pioneering conservation program at the Shuneh involves the use of traditional materials, mudbrick and mud mortar, to treat the condition problems in a way that reflects and maintains the existing character of the monument, the product of its nearly 5000-year history.

The conservation program at the Shuneh has received major support from the American Research Center in Egypt (with funds provided by the United States Agency for International Development), the World Monuments Fund, and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The Abydos team at the end of the 2010 excavation season. Photo by Greg Maka for the PYIFA expedition

The IFA’s archaeological project at Abydos has a substantial history. David O’Connor, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at IFA began excavations at Abydos in the late 1960s on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum, in collaboration with Professor William Kelly Simpson of Yale University. Since Professor O’Connor joined the faculty of the IFA in 1995, IFA has taken the leading role in ongoing fieldwork at the site. Under Professor O’Connor’s leadership the project has grown and diversified substantially since its beginnings, and the challenges presented by the increasing scale, complexity, and regularity of the project’s field operations have been met with the involvement, since 1999, of Dr. Matthew Adams, Senior Research Scholar at IFA, as Associate Director/Field Director of the Abydos project.

Each year a team of archaeologists, art historians, conservators, architects, collection managers, photographers and artists join efforts with a specialized local Egyptian workforce for a 2-3 month field season of highly demanding and highly rewarding work. The team’s time on-site is greatly facilitated by the dedicated Egyptian staff of the Project’s field house. One of the characteristic aspects of the project is that it brings together team members with a range of expertise. Young professionals of diverse backgrounds, for example, students of ancient art and archaeology, students of modern and contemporary art, and students conservators, have the opportunity to work closely with highly experienced specialists in a variety of Project activities. All members of the Abydos teams have professional-level responsibilities and gain professional experience.

Matthew Adams, Field Director

Shunet el-Zebib. Photo by Robert Fletcher for the 2004-05 PYIFA expedition